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04/12/2017

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Over on “MIDI daddy” Dave Smith’s booth, he was pleased to announce that he had reacquired the right to use the name Sequential for his designs – he had sold the original Sequential Circuits to Yamaha in the late 1980s when its fortunes were failing.More significant though, was news that his latest take on his classic synth family, the Prophet 6 – the Prophet 5 being the most successful polysynth his former company ever produced – had actually gone back to discrete analogue circuitry. A volte-face that will delight the purists as some of his earlier Dave Smith products used digital circuitry to emulate the original analogue sound.Smith stated that this was in response to user demand, as many people remarked that his earlier efforts just didn’t have the same analogue warmth. The same is true of his new Pro-Two; again, analogue circuitry but with the addition of memories, which its predecessor the Sequential Circuits Pro-One – its best selling monosynth from in the 1980s – had never had. To my way of thinking this is the best of both worlds, analogue warmth and digital reliability.

Analysis Microsoft has made Office on Android available on tablets at the exact moment its fortunes with Apple and Samsung are in flux. If Redmond's going to win, it needs to bet on Apple.Redmond removed the preview label from Office for Android apps on Thursday, making Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote available from Google’s Play Store.It’s on ARM chips now with support for Intel promised. You need Android Lollipop, at least 1GB of RAM and a screen of 10.1-plus inches.Download is free but you’ll need a Microsoft account to use them and spring for an Office 365 subscription to create and edit docs.The release date is significant date in more ways than you’d imagine. Microsoft has historically run a Windows-only apps strategy; its software was only for Windows, meaning it got two bites of the cherry when it came to earnings. Both apps and Windows licenses were sold, paid for either directly by the consumer or by the PC makers.The one exception has been Office, which also works on the Apple Mac – which is a decently sized mutually-serving desktop and laptop market. Mac on Office helped Apple turn Macs into productivity machines in the office among creatives, while that's translated into money for Microsoft.

With mobile, Microsoft’s surrendered its PCs-only strategy to exploit the mutually serving benefits of Office apps on the go. Tablets have been a growing market, meaning more potential Office users. Office has been the world’s most popular productivity suite, meaning more potential tablet sales.Except now tablet sales are falling, meaning Microsoft has missed the easy growth curve.The fortunes of the device makers are shifting, too. Samsung is the world’s largest supplier of Android smartphones and tablets but sales of Samsung Android phones are down – pranging the electronics giant’s profits by 27 per cent in the fourth quarter. Fingers of blame pointed at Apple’s iPhone, with the iPhone 6's big-screen robbing the Samsung’s Galaxy line up of cash-happy customers.Apple set its personal best on selling iPhones – 74.5 million units over Christmas – with the iPhone accounting for more than half of Apple's business. With bigger-screen smart phones supposedly robbing tablets of business, the question is how far all this changes the market positions of the players, in addition to the question of if – or, indeed, when – smartphone growth takes an even bigger chunk out of tablets.

With Office apps already available for iPad and iPhone, Microsoft shouldn’t care who wins this round of see-sawing. Yet Microsoft has more of a stake in this than it realises. It should welcome Android's reversal and the ascent of iOS devices, as that potentially means more cash in the bank for Microsoft and Office 365 – the backend to Office for the mobile apps.Yes, Google Play downloads beat AppStore downloads by 60 per cent in 2014, but the App Store meant more to app makers' bottom lines; it made 70 per cent more money than Google Play. It has become established fact that Android and iOS device-owners spend their money differently, the former developing a reputation for fiscal prudence (OK, being tightwads).If that doesn’t register, consider this: more iOS users actually want Office for their mobile device than do the Android legions. Since it launched in November 2014, the Office for Android app has had just 250,000 downloads.Office for iPad hit 12 million downloads in just a single week – its first. Admittedly, Office for Android has been in preview and not finished product so – arguably – is not attractive enough to suited-and-booted end users.Sales of Office are falling at Microsoft as it pushes customers into Office 365 subscriptions – it has mainly been giving them away to drive market share.

Microsoft is trading a short-term loss in one of its core businesses for long-term gains; recurring revenue on Office 365. Redmond had better pray that the fortunes of iOS continue to improve at the expense of Android and Samsung. Until last week, Microsoft’s $2.5 billion purchase of Mojang AB made no sense to me. Undeniably popular in the current generation of kids, at some point, Mojang’s Minecraft will fade, like every other fad before it. Mojang doesn’t even have a follow-up to its breakthrough first title. Back in 2013, Minecraft creator Marcus ‘Notch’ Perrson shelved 0x10C, a space game set in the distant future, leaving Mojang looking like a one hit-wonder.Microsoft’s new CEO, Satya Nadella, saw something in Minecraft that no one else had. That’s not a new thing for Redmond. Twenty-three years ago, in a meeting with Microsoft CTO Nathan Mhyrvold, demoing some 3D sensor tech I’d invented, he ignored my hardware and asked lots of questions about the real-time 3D rendering software running on my wimpy laptop. Soon after, Microsoft purchased UK startup RenderMorphics, baking its tech into Windows as Direct3D.

That might be the most profitable acquisition in Redmond’s history, with games, consoles, and billions of dollars of revenue all flowing from that purchase.Games are one area where Microsoft consistently innovates. Direct3D has always performed better than OpenGL, with frequent improvements forcing GPU designers to continuously up their game. Kinect integrated military-grade sensor technology into an affordable bit of kit, becoming the fastest-selling piece of consumer electronics in history.Although Microsoft has talked a big game about how Kinect would transform business software, none of that work ever made it out of the lab - until last week. As various Microsofties demonstrated key features of Windows 10, it felt as though a subterranean strategy of enormous breadth had suddenly breached the surface.Conventional wisdom states that the future belongs to mobile, that is to say, Apple and Google. Everything will continue getting smaller and lighter and cheaper.Nadella’s Microsoft aims for a different goal. Instead of focusing on smaller and lighter and cheaper, Microsoft is going the other way, into faster, stronger, and more engaging, doubling down on the kinds of experiences that will continue to require cutting edge hardware and software - from Microsoft.

The combination of Direct3D, 3D printing support (added in Windows 8.1), Minecraft and Microsoft’s still-in-prototype-but-utterly-spectacular Hololens display creates an operating system that crosses the streams between the real and the virtual. 3D on the screen, 3D spat out of a printer, 3D augmented reality woven throughout the real world: it’s all of a piece.This shift is less about the gamification of Microsoft than about the transformation of business software. Games will remain a tidy earner for Redmond, but the future of business software isn’t the forty year-old tech of spreadsheets - it’s data mining.Every business of any scale now gathers immense amounts of data they have little clue how to analyze to improve either operations or customer relationships. Hiring a squadron of data scientists to search for signals amidst all that noise isn’t practical for most firms. They need better, cheaper, and more accessible tools.During the launch, the Jet Propulsion Lab showed off OnSight, a visualization tool integrating sensor data from the Mars Rover to create a 3D landscape that NASA scientists explore with Hololens. OnSight digests big data and visualizes it, while Hololens makes it easy to use.

Another demo showed a Minecraft-like game set in a living room, where real-world objects, such as tables, acted as surfaces supporting simulated models, a thorough integration of the real and the virtual.That was my penny-drop moment, when the full scope of Microsoft’s ambitions became clear. Minecraft is more than brightly-coloured digital Lego. It’s an environment where millions of kids have learned how to data mine - literally.While far from the sophisticated statistical and pattern analysis that we understand today as data mining, Minecraft does require kids to learn how to explore and manipulate a very large database for their own ends. These skills aren’t as far apart as they might look, and over the next decade, as Microsoft adapts its work in 3D visualization and display to other sorts of datasets, the gap between data mining and Minecraft mining will narrow.With the purchase of Mojang, Microsoft captured the next generation of data miners, who will grow up using Microsoft’s big data visualisation tools, starting with Minecraft, HoloLens, and OnSight - all of them built on Windows. In a few years, those kids will graduate to working with vast databases, hosted on Azure, a complete triumph for a new Microsoft stack.

A few months ago in this column I predicted this cycle of PC upgrades would be the last. I need to amend that, because Microsoft has just redefined the PC. This new engine of visualization - in its way, as radical a vision as Apple’s Macintosh - will be the foundation for a new kind of desktop, for a post-Office world.A decade ago, the future of computing seemed almost boring. Before Apple and Google built mobile Internet of Everythings. Before IBM placed its bets on Watson and growing capacities in artificial intelligence. Now Microsoft - a company that until last week seemed destined for irrelevancy - has unexpectedly positioned itself at the heart of the Next Big Data Thing.Joseph Edwards was alarmed after receiving an email that falsely claimed he'd been spotted browsing illegal websites and needed to pay £100 (payable in Ukash electronic money) or face being prosecuted. The email pushing the well-known police ransomware scam also downloaded malware that locked up his laptop once it was opened.

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